Sangiovese is coursing through my veins. Not just any Sangiovese, mind you, but Chianti Classico Riservas, Brunellos and Super Tuscans. I’ve been lucky to drink a lot of nice Italian wines during lockdown. I feel a kinship with Italy as a Lombardia-like wave of COVID-19 continues to pounds my beloved New York City. It also feels like a tiny gesture of support for Italian producers – bottle by bottle, one day at a time. The higher-end bit came with the exaggerated consciousness of carpe diem, or, as some in the Instagram wine community have hashtagged it, #WTFWines.
For many of us staying at home full-time, what we eat and drink has taken on more importance than ever. Dinner is the social event of the day.While honing our cooking skills, many of us are also spending a lot more time buying and drinking wine. I’ve never been asked so many questions about where to buy wine or which wines to buy! Two friends (different households) just purchased wine fridges. For those lucky enough to be able to do so, it’s not just time to buy more wine. It’s time to do it right.
Doing anything well usually means being prepared. That goes for drinking any wine, but it’s especially true of fine wine. We can buy perfectly nice wines on a need-it-now basis, but that kind of purchasing behavior can make it harder to drink better. Like with other consumer goods, the price tag may be higher or the wines you want may not be available on the spot.
Now, I drink mostly perfectly nice wine. I’m around the juice too much to drink something that I don’t enjoy. There’s always another nice glass just down the road. But what about fine wine? What is it? Tim Atkin MW has written about this, but here’s my definition for the wines that I want to drink at home:
Fine wine is seamlessly harmonious. Fine wine is so compelling that it makes me pay more attention to it. Fine wine invigorates the palate and the mind. (That may sound ridiculous, but it does!) Fine wine delivers that “Ah ha!” moment that converts people into lifelong wine lovers and drives some to find work in the wine industry. Fine wine is moreish. Fine wine is memorable. Fine wine is complex.
Fine wine, by the way, is not limited to select European regions or a handful of grape varieties. Fine wine does not have to be aged to some illusive pinnacle. Fine wine does not have to be expensive, even if many examples are. There are also many expensive wines that are not fine, at least in my view. Still, it is true that fine wine does tend to cost more, but expensive means different things to different people.
Buying fine wine well is often more about the research and the journey than the cash. Buying fine wine well is not about exclusively buying based on points or stars or some other rating system – especially if you are not reading the accompanying tasting notes.
Establishing personal fine wine principles means doing some homework. For once, homework will be mostly fun! It requires tasting widely and thoughtfully. It also requires taking notes. Yes, there is still a work element to homework. No one can accurately remember their reactions to all the wines they taste. Snapping a photo is not enough. It’s all too easy to take a photo before dinner then forget to delete it the next day. Maybe you loved the first sip, but you didn’t want to finish the bottle. Or, it was okay but you wish you would have paid less for it. Or, you liked the bottle but it was too young. How will you remember that, when you buy more, you should wait to open it at least a few years down the road? Remember, fine wine is more than a wine you simply enjoy. It is a wine that makes a wow-ing, positive impression.
This homework will likely also involve reading books or pieces about fine wines written by people who know about them. This is a crucial point. Even in the wine trade, many people do not make a point of buying fine wine for themselves. (It’s a pet peeve.) As such, they may not be equipped to understand fine wine. For example, not all wines from heralded regions like Burgundy, Barolo and Napa are fine wines.
All of this homework and note taking allows you to craft your own definition of fine wine. That personal definition will help when you talk to others as you shop. It is best to focus on what fine wine is rather than what it is not. Remember, most wines are not fine wines.
Now that you are ready to shop, how much do different fine wines that you enjoy – and can afford – cost? Does the wine cost less when bought in full-case or mixed-case quantities, if the quantities are available? How much is shipping or delivery? The average wine bottle weighs about three pounds, so shipping adds up, as can the faster shipping recommended in warm and cold weather. What is your cost matrix for buying fine wine?
It’s time to shop, but where? Your well-curated, local wine store can be a terrific place for reasonably priced fine wine. It may take a few visits to meet someone whose palate you trust or whose lingo makes sense to you. It is worth the investment.
Your wine store isn’t open? The web is full of wine for sale! There are also home-delivery apps at your finger tips.
It is a mystery to me that most consumers remain unaware of wine-searcher.com. Many in the wine trade dislike – and even despise – the search engine, saying that it has leveled the playing field and increased competition. However they feel about it, it’s a fantastic resource. Use it to your advantage to find your wine and – hopefully – find it at a good price.
Sign up for wine store e-letters and winery news letters. Larger stores and higher-end stores often have sales. There are a lot of good deals around now, as retailers try to move product in a tricky market. This is especially true of fine wine because spring is the time of year that many are released. The big guns from Burgundy, Brunello and Rhône are among them.
There are also wine clearance sites that sell wines – usually more expensive ones, fine wines among them – at highly discounted prices for a single day or until they sell out. You just need to be ready to snatch up wines you want when they are released. There were quite a few of these sites during the Great Recession, then they petered out. It’s little surprise that they are making a return now.
If you are a big spender, high-end wine stores might assign a salesperson to you. This might lead to select offers of hard-to-find wines that are not released to the wider public, or that are released to a select group of buyers first.
Beware of most mail order wine clubs, unless it is associated with a single winery. When prices look too good to be true – theirs often do, there usually is a reason.
If you’re interested in mature wines, auctions run by trustworthy houses represent an outstanding opportunity to find gems. With a little combing through the catalogs and applying some strategy to lot positioning, you can score some terrific fine wines that have already been properly aged. Bids can often be submitted in real time or in advance.
Alas, finding some fine wines can be a challenge. Some are made in small quantities. This may mean that you need to buy certain fine wines whenever you find them or are offered them, regardless the price.
Other elusive fine wines are allocated mostly to restaurants. Some restaurants are selling their cellars for off-premise consumption now to pay staff or rent. Whether they are selling at list price or a discounted price, don’t be a graceless cherry-picker! Buy a selection of wines, including everyday wines. If the restaurant has its own-label wine, a Pinot Noir or Chardonnay served by the glass for example, consider buying a few of those. The restaurants will make more margin, and they will be more likely to be able to reopen when allowed. If you have a good relationship with a sommelier, check in. Maybe she or he will offer a wine or two that don’t appear on the list to help cash flow. On the flip side, if a sommelier is not selling top bottles in order to keep selection depth upon reopening, respect that.
It seems to me that if we have a lot of fine wine to open and we’re saving it for who knows when and not enjoying it along the way, we’re not doing it right. If there’s just one option for something akin to #openthatbottlenight, that’s not right either. For many reasons, it is worth curating at least a small collection of fine wine, and today can be a very good time to begin.